Mr K Shanmugam, Minister of Home Affairs and Law.

Does the Fake News Bill carry the weight of moral authority?

I guess it was of no great surprise that the arguably controversial “Fake News Bill” has passed. Despite the valiant attempts of the Workers’ Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MP) to fight against the passing of the bill, they were but a minority in an overwhelmingly Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) dominated Parliament. Many of the concerns that have been raised on the “Fake News Bill” related to the potential arbitrariness of the bill. Without rehashing the entire body of arguments again, the bill was criticised, among other things, for giving too much discretion to the Minister. There are fears that in our dominant one party state, a Minister may potentially seek to use this law to protect his or her party or position over the interests of the state should there be a conflict of interest.

The WP MPs had argued for the courts to be the determinant of what constitutes “Fake News” over the Minister. It is difficult to see why this should prove contentious given that the Singapore government has always vociferously defended the reputation of the Singapore courts of being fair, transparent and open. Since it is manifestly clear that the Singapore government holds our judicial system in high esteem, why is the court not the first arbiter of what constitutes “fake news”?

Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam (K Shan) had, according to TODAY’s reports, “rapped” the WP for opposing the bill.  Amongst his many raps, he had contended that the WP had a very “limited understanding of the law”. The truth of the matter is that no one knows the full extent of legislation. What we do understand however is that the law is meant to protect us and safeguard the notional “separation of powers” so as to maintain adequate checks and balances. Why then is it “limited” for the WP to argue that the courts should be the arbiter of what constitutes “fake news” over a minister?

Further, K Shan had noted that the Bill was a “completely defensible, open system that places no great power within the executive”. But how can that be? If the Minister operates within a system of a one party state and is also the determinant of what constitutes “fake news”, what safeguard is there in place to ensure that such Minister does not use the law to take down detractors against his power base? In this vein, how does the statement that this bill “places no great power within the executive” stack up?

K Shan also commented that the WP MPs had failed to address how the Bill would have a chilling effect on free speech. I don’t see how else the WP MPs can justify that the Bill will indeed have a “chilling effect” on free speech. Surely, if the Minister gets to decide what constitutes free speech, there would always be fears that if one were to say anything that could affect the position of that particular minister, that the minister concerned may used the Bill to silence critics is as easy as ABC to understand? This in itself is a “chilling effect”. In my opinion, the WP MPs were very clear and it seemed that K Shan was using the semantics merry-go-round to accuse the WP of not having discharged their arguments adequately.

Yes, I know the bill has passed and the dust will settle. However, does it settle uneasily which can be whipped into a dust storm in future? Are there niggling concerns that the law lacks legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the public because of the way it was passed? Yes, the procedures and processes were complied with. However, given the haste at which the bill was announced, debated and passed, set against the rumours of upcoming elections, does this bill carry the weight of moral authority?